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When kin step in

Extended family make better foster caregivers. Credit: Credit: Doug Ricker, Aging and Disability Services

Some moms aren’t good at taking care of their kids, says seven-year-old Charli. She opens her hands, palms upward, and shrugs: “My mom just wasn’t.” Which is why Charli and her sister have lived with their aunt Arleeta and grandmother Ginny since they were one and two.

Relatives aren’t always as graceful as Ginny and Arleeta (or more conscientious than foster caregivers) about lifting the burden of shame, guilt and anger from children abandoned by their parents. But a family member with intimate knowledge of the child’s mother or father is in a much better position to paint a calm, realistic, even loving picture of that parent, which can help kids create life stories for themselves that are intact, true and reasonably positive. This is always important. But it's especially crucial in situations where the children will probably never be reunited with their parents.

Charli, 7, with her Aunt Arleeta

Research over the last 60 years has shown that supportive, lasting personal relationships are essential for healthy human development. Child welfare agencies now prioritize kinship care over non-kinship foster care, especially for abused and neglected children. During the past decade, as states across the nation built more systematic support for kinship care, Washington has become a leader in the kin-care movement (see sidebar at right).

Once agency workers determine that a child can't safely remain with his or her parents or current guardians, they have 30 days to locate as many of the child’s relatives as possible. At a collective meeting with those relatives, caseworkers develop a care plan, which includes options for the child’s placement in a home. Any caregiver (either a relative or a stranger) must be able to offer the child safety, permanency and well-being, the three foster care goals specified in the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (1997).

Kinship care nurtures families as well as children, says Meri Waterhouse, program manager for caregiver recruitment, retention and support at DSHS Children’s Administration. Kin-care lets kids maintain connections with their extended family, their community and often their school. Compared to children who are placed with non-kin caregivers, says Waterhouse, most kin-care kids get to stay with their siblings, avoid the disruptions of multiple placements and are reunited with their biological families faster.

One other advantage is that children being cared for by relatives can avoid the social stigma of foster care and protect their sense of self-worth in the wider world. “Kids don’t have to say ‘I’m a foster kid,’” says Waterhouse. “Instead, it’s ‘I live with my auntie,’ or ‘I live with my grandparents.’” In other words, “I belong.”

The number of Washington children currently living in kin-care settings is large and growing. It is now more than five times the 6,700 children living in non-kin foster settings. But kin-care isn’t always easy on the kin.

The blended households of many relative caregivers teeter on the thin edge of security, and the caregivers often struggle in isolation. Most are grandparents, with health problems. Many work at low-wage jobs or live on limited, fixed retirement incomes. Even the most comfortable among them face the complex challenges of raising children who have been traumatized.

Last month, in an effort to bolster community support for kinship care and the people who make it possible, the National Kinship Alliance for Children petitioned the White House to establish a national Kinship Care Month.

Kin-care has its critics. They argue that sanctioning two kinds of kinship care — formal, where caregivers are licensed by the state, and informal, where they are not — leads to a lack of coordination in services. They worry that, as the advantages of kin-care to children’s well-being grow clearer, and social-services budgets tighten, states may unduly pressure relatives to take kids into their homes as a way to cut public costs.

But deeply traumatized kids may actually fare better in formal foster homes with licensed foster parents, because unlicensed caregivers don’t have access to the intensive and free services that are available and sometimes required to treat the psychological wounds of abuse and neglect. And child welfare agencies don’t always make unlicensed relatives fully aware of the fact that they’d be eligible for various kinds of support if they went through the process of qualifying for a license.

Critics also point to inequities that bedevil kin-care, some rooted in cultural differences. For example, in many immigrant, African-American and Native-American communities extended-family members routinely raise young relatives when parents can't. These children benefit from being raised by family, but often go without the public assistance available for children who are raised by licensed foster caregivers. As a result, children in these communities are disproportionately underserved.

Licensed kin-caregivers in those communities may also feel tradition-based conflicts with the system. For instance, a major child welfare goal is emotional and legal permanence for the child. According to George Gonzalez, knowledge management director at Casey Family Programs, which works to improve foster care, some relative caregivers bristle at the notion of adopting: “Why do I need to adopt my own grandson?” is a common response, says Gonzalez.

In all communities, kin-care kids have lower rates of adoption. Grandparents everywhere may resist taking that step out of hope that their adult children will repair their own lives and take the little ones home again.

Despite these legitimate concerns, many foster care experts insist that the pluses of kin-care outweigh the minuses. Perhaps the biggest advantage: Kin-care keeps the door open for a parent’s return and the eventual reunification of the family (a big child welfare goal). Kin-care also makes it easier for parents to casually participate in their kids’ lives in ways that non-kin foster placements do not. And blood-ties are powerful, which (theoretically, anyway) can make life with extended family as permanent as life with parents. “I always saw my grandma and my uncle as immediate family,” says George Gonzalez, a former kin-care kid himself.

Extended families help parents and foster kids stay in touch while they're apart. Credit: FESS

Most important to many informal (or unlicensed) kin-caregivers is their freedom from the state's complex bureaucratic intrusions. As long as the children are safe, no agency caseworker will suddenly appear at their door prepared to take the children away. And growing community-based supports for informal kin-care provided by nonprofits are filling some urgent gaps.

“A relative caregiver may need a one-time rent or utility payment to prevent eviction or shutoff,” says Eileen Rasnack, program manager for kinship services at Catholic Community Services, which is one of the agencies that steps up to help. Like CCS, Family Education and Support Services (FESS) provides emergency supplies of clothing and diapers, according to program coordinator Shelly Willis. Since caregivers tend to put children first and neglect their own needs, FESS also sponsors health activities, as well as home visits by nurses for caregivers who suffer from conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

Even so, kin-caregivers outside the child welfare system continue to suffer from a lack of sufficient resources, says Laurie Lippold, public policy director at Partners for Our Children and a member of the state’s Kinship Oversight Committee. The support deficit is especially unfortunate, considering the positive difference that kin-care makes in the lives of children. “Available studies show that these kids have stronger mental health, education and other social outcomes,” says Lippold. “They fare much better in kinship care than in foster care.”

Children raised by kinfolk would probably agree. James, an eight-year-old living in Rochester, Wash., won an award in this year’s Voices of Children Raised by Grandparents and Other Relatives, an annual essay contest coordinated by FESS.

“They gave me a bedroom, they give me Love,” wrote James. “They give me grate clothes, they gave me a house to live in. I Love my grandparents because they gave me a roof over my head and I do not know my mother.”

Photo of Charli courtesy of Family Education and Support Services (FESS).

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